Feature by Shoshanna Rutemiller
TEMPE, Arizona, July 26. I knocked on the door of Carol “Penny” Taylor, not knowing who would answer the door. The person who received me was a strong, bright-eyed woman in her early eighties, with a face full of smile. Time had treated her well. As she welcomed me into her home just north of Tucson, Arizona, I noticed a glint around her neck, and, looking closer, saw dangling a tiny replica of the Olympic Rings, strung through with a lovely gold chain.
I knew immediately I was in the presence of an incredible woman. Not everyone has the opportunity to speak to an Olympian. Even fewer get the chance to speak to an Olympian who competed in the 1948 London Olympics, held at a time when the world was still healing from the Second World War.
Spread out on a heavy wooden table in her immaculate white-carpeted living room was an extensive collection of Olympic and swimming-related memorabilia. Penny was about to take me on a journey back in time, giving me perspective on the Games of today.
“Good luck sorting through all of this,” she said with a smile. On the table lay two large, yellowing scrapbooks, filled with clippings. A pile of magazines, including a 1948 souvenir Olympic brochure that caught my eye, lay off to the side. I felt hesitant to touch history, but my fingers itched to flip through the papers.
Penny qualified in the 200 breaststroke after finishing second at the Olympic Trials, then held in Detroit. Immediately after the meet ended, Penny hopped on a train bound for New York. There was no “down time,” no Team USA training camp. As soon as the U.S. team members were picked, they were off, headed across the pond on a luxury liner refurbished for the female athletes. The men took to the air.
Penny opened up one of the scrapbooks and pointed to a beautifully illustrated picture of a red and black steamship.
“This is the boat we went to the Olympics on,” she said. “We swam in a ten-meter pool on the boat. We just harnessed ourselves and swam. The only problem was that the water was rocking the whole way there, so sometimes the water would disappear, sloshing out the sides.”
Imagine the uproar today if an Olympic team member's only training option prior to competition was a turbulent, ten-meter pool on a boat. Absolutely unheard of. Especially if it was for seven days; the amount of time the U.S. women spent travelling across the Atlantic Ocean.
Penny flipped to a black-and-white photograph of the Olympic stadium, reminiscent of a large, modern-day open-top football stadium.
“This was where the opening ceremonies took place,” she said. “It wasn't a show then. It was just a ceremony with speeches and things that we all feel like are part of the Olympics.” Penny told of standing outside the stadium in the heat for two hours. Once the athletes finally paraded into the stadium, the King gave a speech, and the Olympic Flag was raised alongside the lighting of the Olympic torch.
“Oh! And they let out doves,” Penny added as an afterthought.
Contrast this with the Beijing 2008 spectacle, when an entire nation came together to display on international television the pride of China. Something similar is expected in London tomorrow, with talks of “how can they possibly top Beijing?”
Add to this the recent controversy surrounding Team USA's made in China uniforms, or Michael Phelps' Twitter photo of his cap with a greatly reduced American flag on it, and we may have found the biggest factor in the evolution of the Games: as more of the world tunes in, the world in turn is expecting entertainment. If that entertainment comes from spectacle or sponsorships, we can't deny that the Olympic Committees are delivering.
“You have to remember,” Penny said as she closed her yellowing scrapbook, “The Olympics at that time were just a sporting event. Now they are the biggest thing in the world.”
The biggest thing in the world. What are the implications of that statement? Tomorrow at the Opening Ceremonies, over 200 nations will parade their athletes. 59 nations were represented at the 1948 Olympics. The London Aquatic Centre was built specifically for this year's Olympics as a permanent fixture, not to mention all of the temporary buildings and Olympic village. In 1948, athletes were housed in existing accommodations, the Olympic pool was “dark and cold,” and the roof of the facility had to be scraped clean of wartime black paint.
Penny provided her own swimsuit for the Olympic competition. She pulled her 1948 suit out of a USA duffel bag and explained, “It's a silk suit, but most women wore Nylon.” I was struck by the sheer quality of the fabric and the skirt hanging over the bottom, indicating a bit of long-forgotten modesty. The suit had a U.S. Olympic patch sewn on the front, which Penny told me she attached herself.
“We tied shoestrings around the back so the straps wouldn't slip off during the race,” Penny added.
Now, officials wonder about the validity of records set during the high-tech suit era. News outlets report records as “textile” bests when a swimmer breaks a mark set before the age of floating suits.
In 1948, women competed in five events: the 100 and 400 meter freestyle, 100 meter backstroke, 200 meter breaststroke and 4×100 freestyle relay. The men additionally competed in the 1500 meter freestyle, and swam the 4×200 freestyle relay in place of the 4×100. There were three timers to a lane, each with a round two-hand stopwatch that registered tenths. The middle time of the three was considered final. Six judges were at each end of the pool and it was at their discretion to award the final places.
Unfortunately, Penny didn't have her best race in the 200 breaststroke in London. She was extremely seasick on the boat ride over, replacing the fancy meals in the ship's dining room with bland crackers.
After the Olympics, Penny stayed active within the swimming community. She spent 35 years as a professional coach in St. Louis. She was a charter member of the American Swimming Coaches Association and was the first female elected to its board of Directors. Penny has held top organizational positions at numerous national and international meets, including the 1984 and 1992 Olympic Games. I would need a much longer article to list her contributions to the sport of swimming.
Yet Penny stays humble about her contributions, instead crediting the constant evolution of the sport of swimming for the opportunities afforded her.
“I've had opportunities I've never dreamed I would have,” said Penny. “I've been all over the world.”
And, tomorrow, the world that Penny has been all over will be watching London.